Remote working, flexible hours, and reliance on technology have become increasingly common practices in many modern-day workplaces over the last few years. Coronavirus is accelerating their implementation, says Cranfield School of Management professor of human resource management, Emma Parry (pictured).
Emma, who also leads Cranfield’s Changing World of Work research group, explains that attitudes and preferences around work are changing. Though the pandemic has been a global experiment no one asked or planned for, it’s an area of research Emma finds fascinating—the way we worked before is set to merge with how we’re working under pandemic conditions.
Coronavirus will change the way we work in three ways.
1. It will move more of the workforce online
In recent years, Emma’s research has focused on technological advancements in the workplace. In the middle of a pandemic, being able to communicate with your team online, as well as submitting work is made far easier with the internet.
Workplaces are now experimenting with social media, AI, and wearable technology, bolstering their presence in the digital space. Emma says she wouldn’t be surprised if in the future organizations choose to move completely online. Alongside saving money with no retail or commuter costs, it allows businesses to hire employees without being restricted by their geographical location.
“Losing the ability to go into the office or travel to work has meant people are using technology for virtual meetings, conferences, and events. It’s been a huge learning curve, and really interesting to see how organizations and individuals have adapted.”
Of course, it’s not without its challenges. As Emma points out, people are naturally social beings, and a lack of face-to-face interaction can prompt a decline in mental health, an unhealthier work-life balance, and slower communication.
“We were seeing it before the pandemic. Organizations pre-Covid that got rid of their physical workplaces found their employees suffered because of that lack of face-to-face interaction.”
2. It will change the way we measure productivity
Before remote working, employees would enter office spaces and stay there for the traditional nine-to-five. Productivity was measured by attendance and whether employees were sat in their cubicles.
Emma doesn’t think this is the way productivity should be measured going forward.
“There needs to be more output-based ways of monitoring people’s performance, rather than physically seeing people with their heads down in the office.”
Before the pandemic, organizations were slowly coming around to the idea of trusting employees to work outside of a manager’s direct oversight. The global lockdown has forced any business dragging its feet to begin addressing the issue of productivity, Emma says.
How do they know their employees are actually working? How do they communicate with their teams?
“At the moment, I’m seeing a lot of traditional managers,” she goes on to say. “There’s a lot of micromanagement happening. There needs to be a change in mindset towards workplace culture, and that includes changing the way productivity is measured. More focus on output rather than logged hours, for example.”
Now Emma is working online, she says she likes to lead by example. She doesn’t measure the team’s productivity through how quickly they respond to an email, but rather through how many of their weekly goals they manage to achieve.
3. It will give us more control over our working hours
Nine-to-five doesn’t work for everyone. Employees with children might need an extra hour in the morning to manage childcare or the school run. Another employee might find they are more productive earlier on in the day and so might shift their start time to early morning.
Restricting all employees to the same hours without taking into account their individual circumstances is becoming a thing of the past.
Although Emma thinks the pandemic will encourage businesses to relax their working hours and allow their employees to work some days from home, she doesn’t think the long-term change will be as dramatic as some predict.
“Prior to Covid-19, there was this illusion that the traditional office was dead and everyone would be working from home, but the number of people working at home in the long-term still remains relatively low,” she explains.
“Flexible working doesn't always have a positive connotation. It can mean longer hours. There’s a massive amount to be done in terms of educating, training, and developing the mindset and culture around leadership and management, in relation to when and where people work.
“Nonetheless, it's safe to say that, when we do come out of lockdown, and work begins to return to normal, it's not going to look the same as it did before.”
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